Call us

Shaping power: A strategic imperative for Europe

European Union / COMMENTARY
Giovanni Grevi

Date: 22/02/2019
In the years to come, the political cohesion and legitimacy of the European Union (EU) will increasingly depend on its ability to shape international affairs in ways that meet the expectations and priorities of its citizens. Given the limited clout of even the largest EU member states in a world of competing heavyweights such as the US, China and Russia, the EU is the only vehicle through which Europeans can advance their objectives. The failure to do so would not only damage Europe’s interests but also potentially lead to the hollowing out of the EU itself, as international tensions will continue to contaminate domestic politics and weaken the solidarity between member states.

Faced with a cycle of resurgent nationalism, zero-sum thinking and great power rivalry on the global stage, the EU and its member states should take a counter-cyclical stance – one that deals with current trends by other means than sheer power politics or occasional transactions. There is no question that Europe needs to harden its defences against a growing range of threats. Beyond that, however, the EU’s comparative advantage is its own experience of rules-based integration and the ability to turn that into concrete achievements, at home and abroad. It should mobilise this experience and equip itself to implement a ‘rules first’ strategic approach.

This time it is different

The EU has long aimed to promote rules-based cooperation on the global stage. But times have changed. The distribution of power at the international level differs depending on which assets are considered. For example, Russia is a major military power but a relatively small economy. In terms of structural power – or the ability to shape how international systems work – the world seems to be headed towards a turbulent duopoly featuring two super shaping powers: the US and China.

Both have veered off from their respective long-held strategies and their relationship is increasingly confrontational. The Trump administration is progressively opting out of the multilateral order and China is opting for an order with Chinese characteristics, reflecting a different political-economic model and worldview from the West. As a result, neither the incumbent nor the emerging superpower is today championing a rules-based global order. The shift of strategic approach in Washington and Beijing is both a symptom and a multiplier of the competition between them. The latter is emerging as one of the defining features of international affairs.

If these trends are unchecked, we may witness the rise of a post-multilateral world. Multilateralism will not unravel overnight, but it would become more shallow and narrow in scope, unable to cope with major global challenges and geopolitical crises.

A rules first strategy

The core strategic question for Europe’s future is whether the EU will play in the top league of global shaping powers to promote cooperation, mitigate confrontation and strengthen its own resilience. Building on the 2016 EU Global Strategy, the EU needs to adopt and implement a ‘rules first’ strategic approach to uphold the interests and values of its citizens. This strategy should leverage Europe’s core asset, namely its rule-making power, understood in broad terms as the combination of EU-level regulatory and market power and of the Union’s engagement in multilateral cooperation and partnerships.

Harnessing this power means focusing on connecting internal policies and resources to external instruments and objectives. The EU’s success in turning domestic assets into tools of international influence will be pivotal to help shape a rules-based international order and, therefore, to the future of Europe.

The EU should, for instance, regulate the far-reaching applications of new and emerging technologies, not least as a step to shape related multilateral regimes. By updating and developing its industrial, competition, investment and social policies, the Union can ensure a level playing field and reinforce the EU’s position to negotiate the governance of a new, more muscular phase of globalisation. The EU should furthermore pursue ambitious environmental and energy policies to remain at the forefront of the multilateral sustainability agenda. And it can leverage its economic power to sanction the breach of international law. Under a rules first strategic approach, these and other dimensions of Europe’s rule-making power should be mobilised in flexible ways to create leverage across policy domains.

A rules first approach is a sober but firm stance in a volatile and contested strategic environment. As geopolitics is making a comeback in international affairs, a rules-first strategy expresses a non-adversarial mind-set. Rules can be hard but, if adopted based on the rule of law, they are not arbitrary. Neither is a rules first approach a rules-only one, since foreign policy requires pragmatism to cope with shocks and crises.  It is about the EU setting out the terms of engagement with others and its own approach to shaping more effective multilateral cooperation, where possible.

The need for strategic autonomy

For the EU, rule-making power is critical to reach an adequate degree of strategic autonomy. The latter requires the ability to set objectives and mobilise the necessary resources in ways that do not primarily depend on the decisions and assets of others. Strategic autonomy is not about isolation but, as EU top diplomat Mogherini noted, about a stronger position to work with allies and partners and foster cooperation.

The debate on strategic autonomy has so far mainly focused on defence issues. Over the past two years, the EU has taken significant steps to create new frameworks and incentives for member states to cooperate more closely in this domain and take more responsibility for Europe’s security, which is a necessary condition of strategic autonomy. However, the debate ought to be framed in much broader terms. Progress towards more strategic autonomy rests on many legs, including the Single Market, the euro and Europe’s capacity for innovation. With a view to these and other assets, rule-making can be considered a strategic enabler to advance Europe’s shaping power.

Of course, fostering strategic autonomy starts at home. Political rifts within and between EU member states and the surge of populist parties across Europe challenge the credibility and the feasibility of a rules first strategy. These developments invite measure and modesty on the prospects for the EU as a shaping power. But they should not lead to inertia or resignation. The weakening of Europe’s cohesion is, at least partially, the result of instability and power politics on the international stage. The EU has no choice but to try and reverse this trend. Having proven more resilient than many expected, the EU still has a strong message and strong assets. The next EU leadership and the member states should join forces and use them if they want to turn the tide.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten